Lebbeus Woods’ Architecture of Possibility

“Architecture resisting change, even as it flows from it, struggling to crystalise and be eternal, even as it is broken and scattered…”

Above: “Architecture resisting change, even as it flows from it, struggling to crystalise and be eternal, even as it is broken and scattered…”

Lebbeus Woods, 1940—2012. Paper architect. Dystopian architect. Anarchitect. Deconstructivist architect. Experimental architect. Visionary architect. Of the array of labels Woods has been named, one word is common: architect. This is interesting to note as, while Woods has written extensively about architecture and he is famous for his ominous drawings of imaginary worlds, the only permanent built projects of Woods’ are The Hermitage sculpture in Rotterdam, The Netherlands and the Light Pavilion in Chengdu, China. What then makes Woods an architect and what is his architecture?
Woods was born in 1940 in Michigan, United States of America, and subsequently spent the early years of his life during a time of war. His father was an air force officer, so as a child, Woods would “sneak down to the flight-line” and watch the jet fighters take off. He also climbed fences and explored for hours the “vast field of derelict fighters and bombers, exploring them inside and out”. Thus he was captivated by the “romantic and fantastical—wind tunnels, transonic circuits, gas dynamics laboratories—a kind of architecture for opening up and exploring new worlds”. With no doubt, Woods’ exposure to this different type of architecture as a young child influenced him and his idea of architecture later in life.

“The Transonic Circuit—a wind tunnel for testing air—and spacecraft in dense atmospheres at extremely high speeds.”
Above: “The Transonic Circuit—a wind tunnel for testing air—and spacecraft in dense atmospheres at extremely high speeds.”

“14 January 1953, overhead crane runway and motor drive.”
Above: “14 January 1953, overhead crane runway and motor drive.”

Woods’ father died in 1953, at the age of fifty-two, when Woods was thirteen, “from a rare form of blood cancer caused by his involvement with the development and testing of the atomic bomb”. The idea of this invasive disease, originating from the inside, spreading and radiating out, could have stayed with Woods and influenced the development of the parasitic architecture evident in his drawings, writing, built work and way of thinking.

Woods had a unique way of rethinking the world, evidently in 1980, he famously designed Einstein Tomb “as a memorial to the life and work of Albert Einstein”. Woods noted that Einstein stated that after his death, he did not want a “memorial as a site of veneration”. As an alternative, Woods designed the Einstein Tomb “to be launched into deep space, traveling on a beam of light, never to be seen in terrestrial space and time. However, owing to the gravity-warped structure of space (which Einstein’s greatest work—his theory of gravitation—described) it would return to Earth in sidereal time, an infinite number of times, or at least until the end of time and space at the death of the universe”.

Woods' drawing of Einstein Tomb Woods' drawing of Einstein Tomb
Above: Woods’ drawings of Einstein Tomb.

From 1987 through to 1996, Woods taught at The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, The Cooper Union New York City. He starting teaching there again in 2001, even meeting Architectonic students for their mid-term critique in a wheelchair just the week before his death. He was heavily involved in teaching the next generation of architects, inspiring them to not simply accept conventions, but to question them and rethink how the world could be. In 1988, Woods helped found the Research Institute of Experimental Architecture (RIEA). RIEA is “an institution with the purpose of advancing experimentation and research in the field of architecture, in response to changing political, economic, technological and cultural conditions in the contemporary world”.

Of Woods’ writings, including numerous essays and his insightful blog lebbeuswoods.wordpress.com, his most prolific piece would have to be War and Architecture, which he wrote in 1993 for Pamphlet Architecture. Pamphlet Architecture is a series that was initiated in 1977 by architect Steven Holl, in order to give a voice to those avant-garde at the edge of architecture, to challenge and inspire others with “Small manifestos for tomorrow”.

In 1999, Abitare created a special issue of the magazine on New York City. Woods contributed 800-1,000 words and a drawing of New York City. At the time, the city had been assumed as being “the biggest, the greatest, the best”. While everyone else’s discussions typically focussed around New York City being the largest in terms of size, that is, the height of their skyscrapers, Woods rethought the assumptions of the topic. He speculated on the future of the city in comparison to developing global cities and realised New York City would no longer be able to compete in terms of size anymore. He wanted to draw attention to the fact that the city sat on the Earth, to rethink the relationship between the city and the Earth.

Woods_ Lower Manhattan as submission to Abitare for the New York City special issue
Above: Woods’ Lower Manhattan as submission to Abitare for the New York City special issue.

Woods created The Hermitage sculpture in 1999, as a partnership between the TU Eindhoven and the MU Art Foundation. The work was originally installed temporarily for two years on the façade of De Witte Dame (MU) in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. It was then donated by the TU Eindhoven to the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI) as a permanent sculpture on the east side of the NAI archive storage building in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

The Hermitage in Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Above: The Hermitage in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

This location in Rotterdam that The Hermitage resides is significant as it is inside the border of the new city centre, Museumpark and the old outer city. War has had a major impact on the cityscape. Rem Koolhaas describes Rotterdam as a unique city opposite of the traditional city, with the war damage to the city centre, resulting in the development of new architecture in the city centre and the retention of old architecture at the outskirts.

Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Above: Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

As Woods explores in his 1998 book BorderLine, inside a borderline are all kinds of systems that collide and intersect, “as the world breaks up, not into chaos, but rather into new patterns of order”. He is fascinated by the tensions within a borderline, how the new patterns are negotiated and create “the tectonic and spatial elements of a new landscape… it is a complex landscape in which fragments retain their identity and yet meld, through negotiation and change, into a new form of continuity”. To be inside a borderline is an interesting unstable space to be.

This condition allows the Rotterdam city centre to feel like a “free for all”, a utopia for Koolhaas, allowing for crazy cantilevering buildings and intimidating port and water management infrastructure at the heart of the city. Rotterdam possesses a quality that makes the city feel as though no one owns it but at the same time also make inhabitants feel like they do own it and have the freedom to contribute, to make a mark in the city, without having to apply for permission from the city.

The Hermitage is just this. It is Woods’ representation of “the tension between the individual and the masses”. It appears as something abstract and alien, morphing from the earthly ordinary brick building reaching higher in hope for something beyond the everyday. Everybody should embrace their individual differences, despite what norms society expects of them, challenge the status quo of the masses with innovative thinking.

In 2007, Holl, a close friend, hired Woods to design a pavilion for a housing complex in the Sliced Porosity Block, CapitaLand Raffles City complex in Chengdu, China. At the time, China had been undergoing rapid development. The Sliced Porosity Block was completed in 2012 and is a mixed use commercial complex designed by Steven Holl Architects. The Sliced Porosity Block was their alternative to the typical ‘towers and podium’ approach adopted for projects of a similar scale. The five towers surround a plaza that wraps over the ground floor shopping centre.
The Light Pavilion in Chengdu, China
Above: The Light Pavilion in Chengdu, China.

Within the Light Pavilion
Above: Within the Light Pavilion.
The Light Pavilion during the evening at Sliced Porosity Block in Chengdu, China
Above: The Light Pavilion during the evening at Sliced Porosity Block in Chengdu, China.

Within the Light Pavilion during evening
Above: Within the Light Pavilion during evening.

The Light Pavilion during the evening as beacon of light in Chengdu, China
Above: The Light Pavilion during the evening as beacon of light in Chengdu, China.

The construction of the Light Pavilion was also completed in 2012, just a few months before Woods’ death. Woods designed the Light Pavilion in conjunction with Christoph A. Kumpusch. It was conceived as an arrangement of bent columns, steel rods, glass platforms and stairs within a four storey opening in one of the five towers of the Sliced Porosity Block, “A towering composition of crisscrossing bridges and ramps… a dense Piranesian space in which people can climb to peer out at the urban sprawl of the new China”.

Kumpusch described the pavilion as a “prototypical space of the future… designed to be an experimental space…” The Light Pavilion gives people the opportunity to experience a type of space not experienced before. In the evening, the web of columns is illuminated different colours that change according to the time of day, month and year, so that it becomes an “entanglement of light and geometry” . From different distances across Chengdu city, the Light Pavilion acts as “a beacon of light” , inspiring the population to “encounter new dimensions of experience”. Woods and Lumpusch acknowledged that each experience would be unique and personal.

Nicholai Ouroussoff noted in his August 2008 article ‘An Architect Unshackled by Limits of the Real World’ in The New York Times, “While most of his friends and colleagues have abandoned their imaginary cities to chase lucrative commissions, Mr. Woods has shown little interest in building. Instead he continues to work at a small drafting table in a corner of his downtown apartment, a solitary, monklike figure churning out increasingly abstract architectural fantasies…”

Ouroussoff also brought to attention that, “Not so long ago many of the world’s greatest architectural talents behaved as though the actual construction of buildings was beneath them”. It seems Woods was of this school of thought. On rare occasion that he did chose to build something, it would be for the select purpose of making a statement, a sort of exclamation mark against the norm, to challenge the established conventions and inspire others to do so too. This would be also applied to his writing, lectures and drawings.

Throughout Woods’ drawings, writing and projects, there is a sense that Woods empathises most with those creatives who have been outcast from society or those innocent people who have been wronged. People tend to empathise most with those most like themselves. As Ouroussoff observes, in Woods’ drawings, the surrounding society appears to be breaking but he has depicted freespaces as protection, “intended as sanctuaries for society’s most vulnerable: outcasts, rebels, heretics and dreamers”.

In War and Architecture, Woods suggests the notion of freespaces. Freespaces are inhabited by people who find the old hierarchical societies too uncomfortable or oppressive. He believes in the idea that freespaces are not owned by the ‘fittest’, but a type of communal space, with its financial sustainability relying on the goodwill of people.

Another underground subversive movement in architecture is ‘mouldiness’ led by Hundertwasser in the 1958 ‘Mouldiness Manifesto against Rationalism in Architecture’. ‘Creative moulding’ is encouraged, whereby everyone is an architect. The Hundertwasser manifesto argues that everybody should be able to design and build their places of living, “Why is it only architects have the authority to do so?” Everyone should build and thus be truly responsible for the architecture in which they reside. If the structure they build fails, it will usually creak prior to collapsing, thus giving the occupants enough warning to escape before being hurt. People would then learn to improve their design and building. While more pragmatic in its conception, this ‘mouldiness in architecture’ movement is similar to Woods’ line of thought when it comes to embracing different people and difference in architecture.

Hundertwasser_s sketch of mouldiness in architecture
Above: Hundertwasser’s sketch of mouldiness in architecture.

Akin to Woods’ approach in The Hermitage and the Light Pavilion, ‘mouldiness in architecture’ calls for “people to rebel against their confinement in cubical constructions like chickens or rabbits in cages, a confinement which is alien to human nature”. Although small interventions in the sense of scale, the use of steel diagonal shards in The Hermitage against the brick module of the NAI building and the colourfully lit at night diagonals in the Light Pavilion against the grid of the Spliced Porosity Block act as statements against the established status quo. ‘Mouldiness in architecture’ celebrates when “rust sets in on a razor blade, when a wall starts to get mouldy, when moss grows in a corner of a room, rounding its geometric angles”. Interception should always occur in everyday life to challenge the established assumptions and norms and to encourage the generation of different ideas.

While ‘mouldiness in architecture’ condemns the buildings of Mies van der Rohe, Neutra, the Bauhaus, Gropius, Johnson, Le Corbusier, Loos and believes these buildings should be torn down, “as they have been outdated for a generation and have become morally unbearable”, it contradicts the belief of embracing difference. These modern buildings juxtapose against other older or more recent buildings and could be modified by a variety of individuals, thereby adding layers to the existing city.

In War and Architecture, Woods discusses the treatment of buildings damaged by war. Old cities originally developed naturally over centuries and generations, consisting of complex layers and fluid meanings. He believes if a building with prior coherent civic importance was damaged by war, it should be restored to how it was before the damage, as a symbol of “past coherence”. Otherwise, the attempt to restore any other building will never successfully recreate those complex layers. Woods also argues against the complete demolition of old buildings and rebuilding a new development as this would create single layered cities, void of the centuries old tissues and meanings.

It is evident in this information age; Woods is an advocate for choice, diversity, chaos and “tissues of meaning” as a new order. At times, Woods seems to always argue against and his conclusions appear overly idealistic. However idealistic, this sense of immaturity acts as a kind of manifesto to inspire. People sometimes need an extreme view to help them think differently from the comfort of the everyday.

For a contender of architecture for societal change, it is interesting that none of Woods’ drawings ever have people depicted in them. When examining Wood’s drawings, many of the places drawn are not functional at all. How could someone occupy a form with such sloping floors, sharp corners etc.? What could these spaces actually be used for? There is no sign of human life in the drawings, not one person is drawn, it is as if it is an alien world in another planet in the universe.

At first, the lack of people depicted in Woods’ drawings appears to contradict all his arguments of designing architecture for people. With further thought, there is a reason there are no people shown in his drawings, with no indication of how they would inhabit the world. He does not want to formulate how people should live in the worlds he imagines, but just create a different architecture that has the potential to reinvent how people could live. He is not dictating how people should live, but creating the possibility for people to live differently.

Some have criticised Wood’s drawings as aestheticising violence. As much as Woods is against acts of violence, it is this violence that his utopian city with layers of complexity relies on to thrive and progress, “Architecture must learn to transform the violence, even as violence knows how to transform the architecture”. In Woods’ way of thinking, violence must not be assumed to mean physical violence, but be understood in the wider sense, violence as challenging the readily accepted.

Woods proposes the adoption of the human body’s systems of repair; scab and scar, in architecture. “Acceptance of the scar is an acceptance of existence”. To have a mark of death is to have lived. To have died, you must have had lived. Woods encourages cities not to be in denial of their scars, but supports the idea that cities be proud of their scars as they are opportunities to develop in new ways. A break in society’s way of thinking is an opportunity for societies to develop in new ways.

Woods said as much when he spoke with The New York Times in 2008, “I’m not interested in living in a fantasy world… All my work is still meant to evoke real architectural spaces. But what interests me is what the world would be like if we were free of conventional limits. Maybe I can show what could happen if we lived by a different set of rules.”

Woods’ architecture challenges the status quo and opens up possibilities. It is unknown what may come from it, “It’s the idea that a building—a work of architecture—could directly catalyze a transformation, so that the society that finishes building something is not the same society that set out to build it in the first place.”



The Cooper Union, ‘Lebbeus Woods Remembered’, The Cooper Union [Website], 14 November 2012, available from: http://cooper.edu/about/news/lebbeus-woods-remembered, accessed 23 October 2017.

Amy Frearson, ‘Light Pavilion by Lebbeus Woods with Christoph A. Kumpusch’, Dezeen, 19 January 2013, available from: https://www.dezeen.com/2013/01/19/light-pavilion-by-lebbeus-woods-at-sliced-porosity-block/, accessed 15 October 2017.

Rodrigo Frey, ‘The Indicator: Morning, Lebbeus’, Arch Daily [Website], 14 November 2012, available from: https://www.archdaily.com/293394/the-indicator-morning-lebbeus/, accessed 22 October 2017.

Hundertwasser, ‘Mould Manifesto against Rationalism in Architecture’, Hundertwasser [Website], 1958, available from: http://www.hundertwasser.at/english/texts/philo_verschimmelungsmanifest.php, accessed 15 October 2017.

Rem Koolhaas, ‘Why OMA is based in Rotterdam’, Charlie Rose [Interview], 14 January 2016.

Greg Girard and Ian Lambot, Danny Marketeer, ‘5 Things I miss most about old Hong Kong (part 1)’, Sam the Local [Website], available from: https://samthelocal.com/5-things-i-miss-most-about-old-hong-kong-part-1-dannys-take/, accessed 31 August 2017.

Geoff Manaugh, ‘Without Walls: An Interview with Lebbeus Woods’, BLDGBLOG [Website], 3 October 2007, available from: http://www.bldgblog.com/2007/10/without-walls-an-interview-with-lebbeus-woods/, accessed 15 October 2017.

Netherlands Architecture Institute, ‘Lebbeus Woods: The Hermitage’, Netherlands Architecture Institute [Website], 2013, available from: http://en.nai.nl/about_the_nai/nai_building/item/_pid/kolom2-1/_rp_kolom2-1_elementId/1_146524, accessed 15 October 2017.

Nicolai Ouroussoff, ‘An Architect Unshackled by Limits of the Real World’, The New York Times, 24 August 2008.

Pamphlet Architecture [Website], 2016, available from: http://www.pamphletarchitecture.org/about.html, accessed 21 August 2017.

Ekkehard Rehfeld and Lebbeus Woods, ‘Inside the Border’, BorderLine (Michigan: Research Institute for Experimental Architecture, 1998).

Ryan, ‘Paddington Reservoir Gardens’, Posse [Website], available from: http://posse.com/place/AU/Paddington/Paddington+Reservoir+Gardens, accessed 31 August 2017.

Sara, ‘Lebbeus Woods’, City Movement [Website], 2012, available from: https://citymovement.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/lebbeus-woods/, 5 November 2012, accessed 22 October 2017.

Sculpture International Rotterdam, ‘Hermitage’, Sculpture International Rotterdam [Website], 2011, available from: https://www.sculptureinternationalrotterdam.nl/en/collectie/hermitage-en, accessed 15 October 2017.

Michael Sorkin, ‘Lebbeus Woods. Into the Woods’, Domus, 19 January 2005.

Spirit of Space, ‘Two Videos on Steven Holl Archietcts’ Sliced Porosity Block’, Metalocus [Website], 2013, available from: https://www.metalocus.es/en/news/two-videos-steven-holl-architects%E2%80%99-sliced-porosity-block, accessed 15 October 2017.

Gerhard van Roon, ‘Friday photo: Twilight over Rotterdam’, Air Facts Journal [Website], available from: http://airfactsjournal.com/2016/01/friday-photo-twilight-rotterdam/, accessed 31 August 2017.

Lewis Wallace, ‘Lebbeus Woods: The architect who dared to ask what if?’, Wired (California: CNMN), 15 Feburary 2013.

Lebbeus Woods, ‘War and Architecture’, Pamphlet Architecture 15 (New York: Princeton Architectural Press), 27 June 1993.

Lebbeus Woods, ‘The Vagrant Light of Stars’, Lebbeus Woods [Blog], 27 September 2009, available from: https://lebbeuswoods.wordpress.com/2009/09/27/the-vagrant-light-of-stars/, accessed 23 October 2017.

Lebbeus Woods, ‘A Space of Light’, Lebbeus Woods [Blog], 15 February 2011, available from: https://lebbeuswoods.wordpress.com/2011/02/15/a-space-of-light-2/, accessed 15 October 2017.

Lebbeus Woods, ‘Origins’, Lebbeus Woods [Blog], 2 January 2012, available from: https://lebbeuswoods.wordpress.com/2012/01/02/origins/, accessed 21 August 2017.

Lebbeus Woods, ‘Why I became an architect—Part 1’, Lebbeus Woods [Blog], 6 February 2012, available from: https://lebbeuswoods.wordpress.com/2012/01/02/origins/, accessed 21 August 2017.

William Yardley, ‘Lebbeus Woods, Architect, Dies at 72’, The New York Times, (New York: The New York Times), 3 November 2012.


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